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California Bill Could Limit Police Access To Body Camera Footage

May 1, 2015
Originally published on May 1, 2015 11:46 am

The unrest in Baltimore and other cities regarding alleged police misconduct has prompted new calls for law enforcement officers to wear body cameras. Such recordings could provide accountability and transparency in potentially controversial circumstances.

At least, that's the idea.

But the recent controversies and scandals also have introduced questions about how often officers' stories line up with what's on video.

Last summer, a rookie police officer in Oakland, Calif., pulled his gun on a man and his two young sons outside a fire station at night. The action was recorded by the cop's body camera as he issued orders to them: "Put, put the bag down! Put your hands up! Put you hands up! Turn around!"

Fortunately, the cop, who was white, quickly learned that the suspect, who was black, wasn't a burglar, but rather an off-duty firefighter. The officer apologized, though like virtually any video involving police these days, the incident went viral.

The Oakland Police Department has been using body cameras since 2010, and they've had an impact — cases of use-of-force and citizen complaints are both down, says Police Chief Sean Whent.

But have officers' reports fit what their cameras have recorded?

"Our experience has been that the evidence has largely supported the actions of the police officers, in showing that they were in fact behaving appropriately," Whent says.

Whent has been at the State Capitol in Sacramento a lot lately, testifying on behalf of a hotly contested proposed law that would have prevented police officers — in cases where force was used — from reviewing their own recordings before giving a statement.

Whent says he wants to know what a cop recalls from an incident, not what the video recorded. That's important, he says, because it goes to the cop's state of mind.

"And we believe that the public has more faith in the process if the officer does not watch the video prior," he says.

It's all about transparency, says Whent.

But many law enforcement groups aren't buying that. They have rallied in opposition to the measure, saying it that would undermine accurate police reports — and that it presumes that the police will lie.

Mike Rains, an attorney who specializes in representing police officers and their unions, says that's absurd.

"It really is the only reason for not showing an officer a video, is that 'OK, we don't want you to be able to get your story straight,' " he says. "And it's all premised on that. It's crazy!"

Crazy or not, this debate is just one of the questions raised by body camera use by police officers. Throughout the nation, policymakers are talking about rules for when a cop's camera should be turned on, where the recordings should be stored, and when — if ever — they should be shared with the public.

But this issue of whether a cop can see his or her video before writing a report is the most contentious, says Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. While she says there is a risk that some police officers will tailor their reports based on their videos, she also says that, in many instances, the possibility that other footage might be available could deter that.

"It may not be possible for them to be as much of a schemer as people think they can be, because you have lots of videos, not just the one that might be on the officer himself," she says. "In this day and age we might have videos from other perspectives, and they cannot anticipate what those will show."

Still, it appears that — for now — law enforcement is winning the debate.

Earlier this week the Los Angeles Police Commission voted to allow its officers to review their video before writing reports. Days later, the California Assembly bill Oakland Police Chief Whent testified about was amended to give police around the state that same access — except in cities like Oakland that set their own limits.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's been much noted that the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore might never have been noticed had it not been for a video taken by an onlooker, which is why protests in Baltimore and other cities over alleged police conduct have led to calls for more police to wear cameras. Those video recordings could in theory provide accountability and transparency. But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it's also introducing the question of whether to let police see the videos they record.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Last summer, a rookie police officer in Oakland, Calif. pulled his gun on a man and his two young sons outside of a fire department station at night. The action was recorded by the cop's body camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF BODY CAMERA RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Put the bag down. Put your hands up. Put your hands up. Turn around.

GONZALES: The cop quickly learned that the suspect wasn't a burglar but rather an off-duty firefighter.

(SOUNDBITE OF BODY CAMERA RECORDING)

KEITH JONES: I'm an Oakland firefighter. That's my truck right there. See the K and J in the front? See the firefighter plates?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Stay right there. Don't move.

GONZALES: Fortunately, the confusion was over in just a couple of minutes, as the firefighter, who is black, convinced the cop, who is white, that there was no crime. The office apologized. But like virtually any video involving police these days, the incident went viral, in part because a body camera video existed in the first place. The Oakland Police Department has been using body cameras since 2010, and they've had an impact. Cases of use of force and citizen complaints are both down says police Chief Sean Whent. The question is whether officers' reports fit what their cameras have recorded.

SEAN WHENT: Our experience has been that the evidence has largely supported the actions of the police officers and shown that they were in fact behaving appropriately.

GONZALES: Whent has been in Sacramento a lot lately, testifying on behalf of a hotly contested proposed law. The bill would have prevented police officers from reviewing their own recordings before giving a statement whenever they were involved in a case of the use of force. Whent says he wants to know what a cop recalls from an incident, not what the video recorded. That's important because it goes to the cop's state of mind.

WHENT: And we believe that the public has more faith in the process if the officer does not watch the video prior.

GONZALES: It's all about transparency, says Whent. But many law enforcement groups aren't buying that. They've rallied in opposition to the measure, saying it would undermine accurate police reports. And, they say, it presumes that the police will lie.

MIKE RAINS: That's - that's absurd.

GONZALES: Mike Rains is an attorney who specializes in representing police officers and their unions.

RAINS: It really is the only reason for not showing an officer a video, is that, OK, we don't want you to be able to get your story straight. And it's all premised on that. It's crazy.

GONZALES: Crazy or not, this debate is just one of the questions raised by cops and body cameras. Throughout the nation, policymakers are talking about rules for when a cop's camera should be turned on, where the recordings will be stored and when the video will be shared with the public, if at all. But this issue of whether a cop can see his or her video before writing a report is the most contentious, says Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Sure, she says, there is a risk that some cops will tailor their reports based on their videos.

LAURIE LEVENSON: On the other hand, it may not be possible for them to be as much as a schemer as people think they can be because you have lots of videos, not just the one that might be on the officer himself. In this day and age, we might have videos from other perspectives. And they cannot anticipate what those will show.

GONZALES: Still, it appears that for now, law enforcement is winning the debate. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Police Commission voted to allow LAPD cops to review their video before writing reports. And then yesterday, the California assembly bill was amended to give police around the state the same right, except in cities like Oakland that already limit the police. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.